Image: Screenshot from Official Trailer
Made in China 2025 is already showing in a cinema near you as Hollywood is relegated to a supporting role in the mainland’s booming film industry, writes Mathew Scott
William Goldman knew a thing or two about the movie business, having won Oscars for the screenplays of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 and All the President's Men seven years later.
The American – who passed away last month – was also a noted novelist (Marathon Man and The Princess Bride) and playwright (A Family Affair). But it might be the following for which Goldman should best be remembered: “Nobody knows anything.”
Those were the opening words for Adventures in the Screen Trade, his 1983 insider’s take on a Hollywood that was still the undisputed king of the global movie business. Even then, Goldman saw filmmaking as little more than a game of chance, a crap shoot where the big studios could never be certain that luck was on their side and a film would turn a profit.
The odds are even longer today.
Hollywood’s crown is slipping. The Chinese film industry has emerged from nowhere: Domestic box office takings topped those in North America for the first time in the first three months of this year, with China forecast to finally eclipse the U.S. as the world’s biggest market by 2020 on annual turnover of around US$11 billion.
And never have Goldman’s words rung more true. Nobody, it seems, knows much of anything about where things are headed.
Not in China, and certainly not in a Hollywood that appears confused about how to deal with China’s rise and, of course, how exactly to get in on a piece of the action.
“At first it was a bit like a gold rush,” explained one veteran American producer. “Everyone in China wanted to start making movies, and everyone from outside of China wanted to make the most of the situation, especially the big American studios. But things in China can change quickly, in both the film industry and politically. Right at the moment, no one is really sure what is and will be going on.”
Some of that uncertainty can be put down to the shadow that has been cast across all industries by the ongoing trade war. At the time of writing, a truce had been called after months of tit-for-tattery – a 90-day reprieve before the U.S. threat to ratchet up tariffs on US$200 billion in Chinese imports to 25 percent from 10 percent.
It was the elephant in the room at the 2018 edition of the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea in October. It was whispered about by international filmmakers who – as in the producer quoted above – would not go on record for fear of damaging their prospects in China; and it was discussed openly (but, again, off the record) once booze loosened tongues at industry parties.
But no one seemed to know how any possible escalation might impact on the ever-evolving relationship between the nations’ film industries.
“We’re just waiting to see what happens, like everybody else,” another producer said. “But things are at a complicated stage.”
The focus of international concern in recent times has been on the changes in the nature of the movie sector on the mainland, and the impact that is having on the international film industry.
After a decade of major – and very public – investments in Hollywood studios, the government of Xi Jinping suddenly reined in Chinese spending overseas, with deals such as a reported US$1 billion financing agreement between Huahua Media and Paramount Pictures falling through. At one stage, it seemed like every big American studio was there for the taking, with Chinese investors emboldened by the likes of the Dalian Wanda Group’s US$2.6 billion buyout of AMC Entertainment in 2012. (Which had in turn been cheered on by a new Communist Party-led policy of bolstering China’s cultural industries through support for overseas acquisitions.)
Over the past 12 months, however, China’s gaze has become far more internal.
It took a harsh lesson to bring about that shift in mindset. In 2016, around US$150 million was spent on the effect-laden The Great Wall, with Oscar-winner Matt Damon in the lead. It was heralded as the Chinese film industry’s first major attempt to make an international blockbuster. And it was a flop.
There has also been the Chinese government’s push that mainland-made films should promote themes, characters and narratives that place the country and its people in a positive light. Always.
That has resulted in the release of gung-ho blockbusters with nationalist themes – such as the Wolf Warrior franchise – that have been runaway successes, so far at least.
The Hollywood Reporter was at the fifth annual U.S.-China Film & Television Industry Expo held in Los Angeles this past September and found the current mood of the Chinese box office a main topic of conversation.
Imported films – led by Hollywood and under a quota of around 34 releases per year – had experienced a 24 percent drop in ticket sales in 2018, and local films were, well, flying. (See charts: Chinese-made movies are colored red.)
“The fact of the matter is that Chinese-language films are getting better,” said box-office analyst Rance Pow, CEO of consultancy Artisan Gateway, according to THR.
Pow pointed to the fact that of the six films that have earned more than US$300 million at the Chinese box office this year, only one – Marvel and Disney's Avengers: Infinity War – had been from Hollywood.
“This is a key point to keep in mind when we assess opportunities within the market as foreign producers, investors and distributors," Pow said. “[Chinese films] in fact are getting very good, and without the crutch of the regulatory environment – they are simply connecting very strongly with their audience.”
'The way it was...'
They are also now hiring Hollywood talent to work within the domestic system – giving roles in distinctly “local” productions to the likes of two-time Oscar winner Michael Douglas (Animal World), Bruce Willis and Adrien Brody (Unbreakable Spirit).
Gun Hollywood producer Jason Blum was in Busan after a string of international hits that have included the Oscar-nominated Whiplash (2014) and Get Out (2017).
In talking about his own tentative plans to enter the Chinese market, Blum hinted that the time had come for Hollywood to focus more on working within the Chinese market, and its many and varied constraints. On the mainland the sort of horror films for which Blumhouse Productions has become famous – including the Paranormal Activity and The Purge franchises – would never pass the censors due to their subject matter.
“[But] I like a challenge,” said Blum. “I was intrigued by the notion of producing a movie that would qualify as a local scary movie, to follow all the rules of the [Chinese] censor and to make it scary."
Various producers spoken to on the sidelines of BIFF were of similar sentiment. Although they all agree success in cinema was never guaranteed, the most import thing was being able to put yourself – and your production – in the game.
“Instead of the Chinese film industry looking to Hollywood, to invest and even to learn, the focus is more on what it happening at home,” according to a Hong Kong-based producer. “Chinese-made films are dominating at the box office and the sense is ‘you can come and work with us now,’ rather than ‘come and show us what to do,’ which is how it had been before. It’s a natural and positive progression but what has surprised most is how quickly it has happened.”
Image: Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
Savage debut: one to watch
For an indication of just how far Chinese cinema has come so quickly look no further than Cui Si-wei’s debut feature Savage.
It’s a film that could well have been put together by one of the world’s major international studios – and by one of the world’s most seasoned filmmakers – rather than a director sitting behind the cameras for the first time.
And at the annual Busan International Film Festival in October, the actioner picked up one of the two New Currents award prizes, handed out for first- or second-time filmmakers.
It was a major shift in focus for the New Currents jury, which has in the past focused on more worthy, politically or socially charged works. But they were blown away by this “strikingly accomplished and riveting” film, which follows a forest ranger chasing gold thieves in a snowy mountain range.
The film is purely commercial in its intentions, with a big, obvious budget and the talent on show of box office champions Chang Chen (The Grandmaster,The Assassin) and Liao Fan (Black Coal, Ash Is the Purest White).
“[The film shows] a mastery of genre cinema, with multi-dimensional characters and thrilling action sequences,” the New Currents jury declared.
Watch out for the film when it opens next year.